Learning to Quilt

Close up of a section of one of my first wild improv quilts.

Since the pandemic started, I spend a lot of time on social media watching process videos. There’s something soothing about watching people make things with their hands, especially with the soft clicking and rustling of tools and materials, papers, fabric, wrenches, and screws. One of my favorite content creators is a guy in France who cleans up rusty old household items in near silence. I also love embroidery videos and the soft pull of needle through fabric, the satisfying ballet of someone else’s fingertips in close-up manipulating thread into flowers and faces.

In March 2020, my partner’s mother died. She and her first husband, my partner’s father, had a marriage focused on making beautiful things together, including both fine and functional art and clothes and blankets. My partner brought home a truckload of boxes full of various supplies, including yarn, fabric, a sewing machine, leather tools, even an ancient KitchenAid mixer. He repurposed his grief into digging a huge garden by hand, planting tomatoes, and refurbishing one of his dad’s old wood planers in the shed.

I fussed and worried. I was creatively blocked. Usually you can’t get the embroidery or knitting needles out of my hands, but the shock of world events had me too anxious to create. We moved to a new state in December of 2020, leaving behind my hometown and friends and family for an excellent new work opportunity, just to find ourselves further isolated by the pandemic.

At some point during the beginning months of the pandemic, I read this beautiful piece on the art of Rosie Lee Tompkins. It’s a lovely piece of writing on art, the artist, and her trajectory as a public figure, but the photos of her pieces moved something in me, and I was suddenly full of ideas and ambition. I had to learn how to sew. Her pieces were this beautiful chaos of color and composition, alternately arresting and comforting. Tompkins quilted in the tradition of “crazy quilts,” and improvisational quilting made most famous by the treasured Black quilters of Gee’s Bend. But in her own style, she mixed fabrics from velvet, velveteen, faux fur, terry cloth, jersey, linens, tea towels, sports jerseys, t-shirts, into a wonderfully expressive explosion of color and shapes. It inspired me like maybe no other art has before. I had this machine in the house, I had thread, I had fabric, and I wanted more than anything to be lost in the process of learning something new, so I took out that old sewing machine and dusted it off.

My youngest curled up under a fresh quilt in my print-heavy house.

Art & the Artist

A few years ago, I learned how to embroider during a period of deep grief. I was going through a great deal of changes at home and the sadness was so overwhelming that I sunk myself into something immediate, drawing simple pictures with thread. It became a path back to joy, as some of them were popular enough to raffle for local non-profits, and it was something to practice, think about, dream about and execute. It was nice, a good thing,. But I ran up against an issue I always have, which is being someone who loves art, loves artists, loves making things, but isn’t particularly excellent at it. I can hang but I’m never going to be number one.

An original embroidery design of one of my favorite subjects, 2019.

I’m having the same problem as I learn to quilt. My grief is channeled into this new medium – making it something of an obsession – but I’m running up against my lack of artistic eye. I am attracted to kitsch and print, which means I go wild when presented with novelty fabric, with no consideration whatsoever to how it will look as part of a composed piece. Give me all the polka dots. Cat prints? Love ’em. Dalmatian print? Cheetah print? Leopard print? Hell yeah. Florals? The bigger and brighter the better. Give me kitsch like SPAM advertisements and ironic 1950s kitchens with swirling mixers and tired housewives, horoscope signs, eyeballs and spiders and ducklings and clouds and food stuff and stripes.

Apparently this is an issue that many beginner quilters have. 1) We struggle to understand how the fabrics we like will look as part of the final composition, and 2) we don’t understand that even “scrappy quilts” like Tompkins’ (and lesser examples) require expert level skills and planning to execute. Solids are boring so we pile the wild prints into our carts and spend, spend, spend. It looks like it all just comes together at random, like anyone can do it. So, this is a humbling realization.

Industry & Process

All told, the process of quilting isn’t terribly difficult. A top and bottom fabric sandwich a piece of batting in between. What makes a quilt a quilt is the sewing and/or tying to attach the sandwich pieces together. You can do the quilting by hand or machine or a combination of both.

My helper, Frank Pickles, helping.

The patchwork or piecework that most people associate with quilting can be simple or mind-boggingly complex, and the market has responded to the complexity by spinning up an estimated $4.2 billion a year in fabric, tools, machinery, classes, shops, and trade shows to solve our problems. In response, sustainable quilting is coming into fashion thanks to global concerns about fabric waste in the textile and clothing industry. These quilters turn old textiles into new pieces and it feels like kismet. Magic.


I used a mix of old techniques and scrap techniques to make this patchwork top, my fourth quilt top since last month. It’s great, and also not at all what I wanted.

A wild, improv quilt top made up of a lot of small, experimental pieces and parts.

When I completed my first quilt last month, I did so with scrap fabrics jammed through a fifty year old sewing machine I can barely operate, with polka dots against disparate florals on stripes on swiss dots, powered by grief. My cat sought me out and laid on it no matter where it was in the house, in my lap while I pinned or on the sewing table on whatever piece of the blanket was sticking out of the sewing machine while I sewed it. The minute I finished binding it and threw it in the wash, my daughter began asking about it. She stole it away from me, chuffed when it came out from the dryer still warm.

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Sharon Needles

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